The welcome at Washington Union CMA Church is always gracious and warm. Here is the text of the sermon I preached there earlier today.
2 John 4-6: The Beautiful Lady
St John the Elder writes to the Elect Lady with one purpose: that she might be transformed by following the commandment from her Lord. So often, we think of commandments as impositions, as things that take away our freedom. We may be compliant with them, but we certainly aren’t going to be happy about it, and we’ll let other people know that, for sure. One only has to look at the newspaper, or the comments sections known as Facebook or Twitter, to see what we think of commandments and those who decree them. Even from leaders we like, or may have voted for, we are critical: think back to your youth, what did you think about your parents when they set down rules for you?
We’ve translated this into a theology that avoids God’s Law: doesn’t St Paul say “you are not under Law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14)? So what is St John saying here? Are we being brought back into bondage by “putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10)?
It may be helpful to first look at how we understand laws. Back in Genesis 1, the Lord God sets laws of division and boundary, to change that which was “formless and void” (1:2) to something that could be called “very good” (1:31). That is, laws were made to properly distinguish things and give them identity: water is different than air, land is different than water, all animals breed “according to their kinds.” Laws make it possible for creation to be fruitful, to be what God created it to be. The problem, then, isn’t laws, but the introduction of corruption, of death and sin, into that good creation: “The stinger of death is sin, and the strength of the sin is the Law” (1 Cor. 15:56). What St Paul is saying here is that the Law was “holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12), yet “sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed” (v. 11). Think back to the story of Adam: the commandment was to have freedom to eat of all the trees of the Garden, except one. Yet the Serpent stepped in and used that one small prohibition to bring death into the world.
What we see, then, when St Paul seems to argue against the Law in Romans or Galatians is not that God’s Law is bad or evil, but that the Law as co-opted by sin, death, and the devil has undone us. What we need is liberation from evil so that the “righteous decree” of the Law can be “fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4) and this is exactly what our Lord Christ has done. He has “condemned sin in the flesh” (v. 3), He has destroyed the power of the devil (1 John 3:8), and released us from the bondage of the fear of death (Heb. 2:14). Yet, we also must remember that in the midst of this He “did not come to destroy [the Law] but to fulfill it” (Matt. 5:17). What does this mean? So often, we assume that “to fulfill” something means to do away with it. But when we fill a glass to the brim (to “full fill” it), we have not done away with it, we’ve made it what it is supposed to be. Now it can be properly used. When Christ says He’s come to “fulfill” the Law, it means to bring it to its proper purpose. What is that purpose?
Here is where the 2nd Epistle of John comes in: the purpose of the Law is to train us in love. Consider our Lord’s words in Mark 12: “The first of all the commandments is ‘Hear, o Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (29-31). The point of the Law is to love God and love others. Or we might again go to the teaching of St Paul: “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the Law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall shall murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if any other commandment, all are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:8-10).
Returning to our Epistle, we can now understand why he says, “And now I plead with you, Lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment to you, but that which we have had from the beginning: that we love one another. This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it” (2 John 5-6). The command is to love, and to love is to obey the commandment. The Law is to train us in love and does so by being love. When we love someone, acting in a loving way does not seem burdensome or hard, it does not seem like our begrudging compliance to traffic laws, but it seems like freedom. It seems natural, for it is. Our loving actions flow out of the love that exists between us and our beloved. Or, as St Augustine famously said, “Love God and do what you will...let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.” If we are in the love of God, we can love.
St John, in the quote, refers to “the beginning” a few times. We find this beginning in his account of the Gospel, particularly chapter 15, which we read earlier today: “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love...This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (vs.9-10, 12-14). Here we see that we are in God’s love (“As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you”) and through that can love, that is, keep the commandment. This is not burdensome, but freedom. At the same time, it costs us everything (“lay down one’s life for his friends”), yet gives us everything and more (“You are My friends”). Because we have been loved by God in Christ, we can love all others.
This love, though, is no soft emotion. It is the “laying down of one’s life.” We see this, for example, in St Paul’s instructions to husbands: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her” (Eph. 5:25). How did Christ love the Church? He “gave Himself for her,” that is, He “laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16). No man, then, can say he loves his wife if he an adulterer, whether he has joined himself to a prostitute (1 Cor. 6:15-16) or has committed “adultery in his heart” by looking at another woman “to lust for her” (Matt. 5:28). Rather, forsake such lusts, “pluck out your eye and cut off your right hand,” and then you can say in truth and in deed that you love her. Or, as our Lord Christ puts it elsewhere, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Lk. 9:23). This is love, that we become “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20) and so are transformed into true lovers, which is what God is, for “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
St John gives this instruction to the “elect lady”: who is she? She is none other than the Church, the Bride of Christ, who like Eve before her is the Body of her Groom. How will we, who are the Church, be so transformed by the love of God, except by loving even as we are loved? St Paul shows us, again, that even if we had all the spiritual gifts, none of it would matter if we did not love one another. But, what does that love look like? “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy, love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7). If we so love, the world will see and will desire that which we have: our love for one another, our self-sacrifice, will transform not only us, but the whole world.
We must remember the context, though: this is not just moral effort being welled up of our own accord. This is living out the love of God, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), enabled by the Incarnation of God’s Son and His work on the Cross. We can be crucified to life in Him, but not without Him. This means that the work of love, our true calling and purpose, starts with prayer and becomes, not gaining favor or merit with God, but an enacted prayer -- a life that is prayer to God for the life of the world. Amen.